THE WITCH (THE VVITCH)
Further Inspection is a new column on my blog. Every few weeks, I will pick a new movie and create a spoiler-filled write up for it. Initially, when I write my reviews, I never want to spoil movies in order for my audience to see them. This will allow for a spoiler-filled conversation, because sometimes, movies require the audiences to really indulge in the text in order to understand them. I AM GOING TO USE THIS COLUMN TO REALLY DISCUSS SPOILERS, SO UNDERSTAND YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Back in February, I saw and wrote a review for the horror movie "The Witch," which has been stylized "The VVitch." If you remember my review, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I know lots of people who didn't like it. Its been a polarizing movie, and I caught that as soon as I was leaving the theater in February. But why was this movie so unsuccessful? Why did so many people have the same sort of reaction to movies like "It Follows" and "The Barbadook?" I mean, "The Witch" was a movie which featured the murdering of a baby, then we watch as a naked old woman bathes in the dead infants blood. How did this not get under anybody's skin? I remember that scene made several people gasp and cringe. Personally, the movie was just warming up at that point. Have we become to conditioned to the modern horror movie? Have gorefests and found footage ruined the horror landscape for all of us?
I would argue that this is true. Found footage and an over-abundance of gore have ruined horror movies. My Netflix cue is filled to the brim with bad horror movies, and sadly those are the movies that people go and see. Then when something like "The Witch" shows up, and it genuinely wants to scare you, people aren't moved. I hope and kind of think that "The Witch" will become a cult classic. Its a movie I think horror fans will rediscover in about twenty or thirty years and realize just how out of left field it was. They will discover how shocking it was and how challenging the material was, especially since most of the cast is children. The things the children were asked to do is far beyond anything a child should be required to do. I mean, when I got home I had to look up Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who plays Thomasin in the movie. I had to be sure she was legal, because she looks very young in the movie. At the end of the movie, when she is told by "Satan" to take off her clothes and she walks slowly into the forest, I physically thought the director of this movie had just committed a crime. Relief poured over me when I read she was 19. The reaction felt real and it was a feeling I had never got from a horror movie before.
The big question that was on my mind as I left the theater was "Did what happen to Thomasin and her family real?" What is great about "The Witch" is that it can be interpreted in a couple different ways. I can see why someone would think that the family is hallucinating, but I can also see how someone would think that Thomasin and her family were traumatized by a coven of Witches, and that the family goat "Black Philip" really was Satan in disguise. The movie provides evidence for both points, and its up to the audience member to decide what happened to Thomasin and her family. Maybe that is also bothering audience members as well. So many people expect movies to be spoon-fed to them, precisely because most movies DO spoon-feed the audience. "The Witch" expects you to bring something with you to the movie, and I always love it when movies put a little faith in their audience.
If we look at the possible supernatural aspect of the movie, the whole thing starts with a game of peek-a-boo. Thomasin is playing the game with her infant sister, when she opens her eyes she sees that her sister has disappeared before her eyes. She looks up and sees that something has scampered into the woods that surrounds the family farm. Thomasin's family believes an animal took her, but as I explained above, that is not the case. There is not an animal on Earth that lived in North America that could move as fast as that thing did, so something that to be moving at superhuman speed to get back to the woods. Then there is the hare that continually pops up in the movie. Throughout the history of witchcraft and fairy tales, hares have been incredibly symbolic. It makes since that evil would take the form of a hare. Did the "witches" conjure a hare? Can they transform into them? Did Satan take the form of a hare before Black Philip? Thomasin's other two young siblings spend all day talking to Black Philip, firmly believing that Black Philip is speaking to them. Black Philip literally speaks to Thomasin at the end of the movie, transforming into a man for a brief moment. But the most shocking scene is when Thomasin's brother Caleb gets lost in the woods, finds a creepy house and witnesses a young woman walk out of it. She approaches the boy and begins to kiss him, then suddenly grabs Caleb's head, revealing an elderly arm. At the end of the movie, Thomasin joins the witch coven and finds a bonfire where other women are dancing, right before the credits Thomasin begins to levitate off the ground.
So, there is definitely evidence of a supernatural element to the movie. But for realists, just about everything in the movie can be brought back to science. During the Salem Witch Trial days, women were accused of being women after several people died from unexplained frantic yelling, seizures, panic attacks and possible hallucinations. The doctors at the time blamed the power of Satan on what happened, but you got to remember that they didn't have the medical technology or concepts we have today and religion was big during that period. A toxicologist later revealed that the people who died had ingested a fungus. This fungus can cause seizures, panic, and even hallucinations. It puts the Witch Trials in a very different perspective. If you pay close attention in the movie, there is a point when Caleb and his father William are checking on their crops and see that they are failing. Is there a fungus growing on their crops? It certainly looks like it. Could that explain what Thomasin is seeing? Could that explain Caleb's outburst earlier in the movie. Could that explain Thomasin's mom Katherine's vivd hallucination? Or were their exiled women living in those woods and the fungus caused them to act as they did? The movie points to each of these ideas as possibilities.
But it doesn't just end with the fungus. The biggest theme in the entire movie is religion. William and his family are driven from their community because William is believed not to be religious enough. So William takes his family deep in the countryside, completely cut off from any type of human civilization, and build his new farm in the middle of the woods. The entire movie, William and his family are praying for everything. Every small detail is prayed for. When the baby is taken, William and Katherine believe it is because of their bad uses of Christianity that led their baby to be taken, so they get even more religious as a result. But religious or not, if you are cut off from civilization and left in a secluded area for a long time, you are going to descend into madness. Katherine begins blaming Thomasin for their families troubles. William begins to lie and keep things from his wife. Then there is Caleb...yeah there is Caleb. Throughout several times in the movie, Caleb is checking out his older sister Thomasin. I mean it in every sense of the word. Thomasin is developing breasts and Caleb has definitely noticed. Not only has he noticed, he can't look away. The family is a time bomb and when things really start to get bad and people begin to die, the family implodes. They turn on each other instead of sticking together. That could only happen unless the family lost complete hope, when they needed true mental help. The entire family dies until nobody but Thomasin is left. Not only is the movie scary, its also quite heartbreaking.
But even though there is evidence of madness and fungus, how do you explain Caleb vomiting up an apple?
There is quite an experience to be had with "The Witch," and like I said above, I hope this is something that will be revisited later and people finally see just how great a horror movie it truly is. Character, atmosphere and mood are the greatest ingredients you could possibly need for a good horror movie and it seemed like the cast and crew behind "The Witch" knew that. Its an authentic period piece, even decked out with 1800's style Old English in the script. I hope this is something that picks up steam sometime before I die.
Thank you for reading, and if you really enjoyed this then I will be more than willing to write more inspections on the movies that deserve tons of discussion. Sometimes, a spoiler-free discussion of a movie isn't enough, sometimes its beneficial to really get into the thematic meat of a movie. I hope to do this again.